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Summary Article: timpani
from The New Penguin Dictionary of Music

Large bowl-shaped copper drums with membranes of calfskin or synthetic material, played with two sticks, one in each hand. A range of sticks is used, from soft (with large heads covered with felt or sponge) to hard (small wooden heads), for different qualities of sound. The instrument can be tuned by means of screws that change the tension in the membrane, and its sound can be muted by placing a cloth on it. Timpani made since the beginning of the 20th century have included pedals to change the note. The derivation of the word is from the Latin tympanum (drum), from which comes the occasional spelling tympani. The term ‘kettledrums’ is obsolescent.

The earliest representation of the instrument is on a Babylonian plaque of c.700 BC. Pairs of timpani, mounted on horseback, were used as war drums by Persians in the 1st century AD and by Islamic armies, whence their adoption in Europe during the crusades and later. The instrument in its current form was inherited from the Ottomans in the 15th century and used in church music from the early 17th century, along with trumpets, also brought in from the battlefield; the earliest score to specify timpani was Lully's Thésée (1675). The association of trumpets and timpani continued to the time of Mozart, and their connection with war is still keenly felt in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

From Lully to Beethoven the standard set-up was a pair of timpani (as with the ancestral cavalry), one tuned to the tonic, the other, larger, to the dominant a fourth below, perhaps with changes of tuning between movements. But other tunings were possible, and there were such wonderful oddities as Johann Wilhelm Hertel's Sinfonia for eight timpani and orchestra (c.1748). Berlioz wrote for 10 players on 16 timpani in his Requiem; two or three players are common in scores since Mahler, increasing the timpani's versatiliy and making chords possible. By this stage the norm was a set of three timpani per player, sometimes with an additional very high (small) or low (big) drum. The introduction of pedal timpani allowed such effects as a rising whole-tone scale (Strauss's Salome) and glissandos (Nielsen's Fourth Symphony, Stravinsky's Renard).

The inevitably tiny repertory for timpanists as soloists and ensemble players includes Stockhausen's Schlagtrio and Carter's Eight Pieces.

Jeremy Montagu Timpani and Percussion (2002)

Copyright © Paul Griffiths, 2006

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[16 century] Timpani was borrowed from Italian, where it is the plural of timpano ‘kettledrum’. This in turn went back via Latin ...

Full text Article Timpani [Eng. sing. and pl.; It., sing. timpano; Fr. timbale; Ger. Pauke; Sp. timbal, atabal.]
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Kettledrum; t. coperti, t. sordi , muted or muffled timpani. The most important orchestral percussion instrument, and the only member...

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The Penguin English Dictionary

/timpəni/ pl noun a set of two or three kettledrums played by one performer, e.g. in an orchestra timpanist noun [ Italian ...

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